Family 'choices' extend gender pay gap

Julie Moon

Rebecca Huntley (front right) at a recent equal pay dinner hosted by Unions NSW

Author and social researcher Rebecca Huntley, whose doctorate explored feminist activism and policy within the Labor Party in the 1980s and 1990s, is dismayed at the persistence of the gender pay gap.

In 1983, feminists lobbied inside and outside the ALP for a range of reforms, including discrimination laws, improved child care, maternity leave and greater representation of women in our parliaments. While there has been progress in all these areas, she says, pay equity remains a huge problem.

At a recent dinner held by Unions NSW and attended by more than 200 hundred predominately women union members, Ms Huntley, who holds a PhD in Gender Studies, spoke on why both social and structural reasons contribute to the gender pay gap.

Ms Huntley began by quoting from a recent report released by the Inclusive Prosperity Commission, a joint venture between Chifley Research Centre and The Centre for American Progress, and of which she is a member.

“Around the world, increased female participation in the workforce, a higher share of women working full-time and higher relative wages for women have acted to put a brake on rising inequality.

“Of concern for Australia is that since mid-2000 the gender pay gap has increased significantly. Several factors contributed to this gap including female-dominated industries and jobs tending to attract lower wages, relatively fewer women in senior positions, workforce absences due to caring responsibilities, and discrimination.

“Other factors include low wages and job security in the government-funded services sector impacting social and community work mainly performed by women, and the tendency for more women to be employed in part-time and casual positions reliant on a safety net that has diminished over time.”

She did point out that while Australia was the number one country out of 142 countries when it came to educational attainment for women, this has not translated into the workforce and it has not translated into equal pay outcomes (Gender Gap Report, 2014).

Trying to secure work with flexible hours that would allow them to fulfil their home responsibilities meant women were moving away from reasonably well-paid, middle-class jobs to alternate employment. The jobs they took often meant little opportunity for training, insecure working hours and changeable rosters that were anything but flexible.

The gender pay gap must be addressed as a matter of urgency by the labour movement and progressive political parties, Ms Huntley said, adding that private organisations and industry bodies also had a crucial role to play.

Ms Huntley said she had not seen any robust evidence that more women on boards or more women CEOs led to better pay and conditions for all women workers, although there was some anecdotal evidence that this was the case.

“I would argue that the recent focus on women’s representation on boards, while important, shouldn’t be pursued to the exclusion of a broader struggle to improve the wages and conditions of all Australian women workers,” she said

The gender pay gap remains partly because it is inextricably linked with emotional and social “choices” women and men make about their lives, Ms Huntley said, emphasising that there should not have to be a constant trade-off between flexibility and pay, between job certainty and family responsibility.

Rebecca Huntley was educated at Sydney Girls High School and studied law at the University of NSW and the University of British Columbia, also gaining a first class degree in film studies and a PhD in Gender Studies. She is senior editor and director of insights with the Mamamia Women’s Network. She regularly features on radio and television.